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Reviews | A lesson from Virginia? The culture war still works.

And that suggests the real lesson for Republicans on Tuesday. One of their most powerful political assets is alive and well: the power of cultural issues over politics.

In the broadest sense, “cultural” issues have challenged and troubled Democrats for more than half a century. The backlash of civil rights distanced the South from the Democratic Party in the mid-1960s; crime, welfare, campuses and urban violence have eroded the loyalties of the white working class. These questions helped Republicans win the presidency in five of the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988; only post-Watergate fallout led Jimmy Carter to a narrow election victory in 1976.

Throughout this period, Democrats have argued that the public, to a large extent, preferred their actual policies – their approaches to education, health care, taxes. In the ’80s, I sat down with Democratic House Leader Dick Gephart as he explained to a room full of reporters that once voters figured out what Democrats were going to do about the cost High in college, health care and housing, electoral success would naturally follow.

Spoiler alert: this is not the case.

It wasn’t until Bill Clinton directly repudiated his party’s orthodoxy on crime and welfare that the political tide shifted. It was Clinton who promised to “end welfare as we know it.” And his “blue wall” was not a collection of declining industrial states, but the ranks of uniformed cops who stood behind him as he pledged to support the death penalty. Clinton had a Rotary Club cliché for his strategy: “Voters won’t care what you know unless they know how much you care. “

To be frank, his stances on crime and welfare, as well as his stern repudiation of the provocative lyrics of a black rapper named Sister Souljah, were signals – or maybe dog whistles – that he was ready. to push back what we would now call the “awakened” wing of his own party.

Call it cynical, but what Clinton understood was a fundamental reality of politics: “Culture trumps politics. A six point agenda to make schools better and colleges more affordable will mean very little if voters think their neighborhoods are unsafe; and while demagogues will eagerly fuel such fears, they will only motivate voters if there is an underlying reality to them. Violent crime in America increased sharply throughout the 1960s and 1970s; when he started to back down, as he did from the early nineties to two years ago, crime practically disappeared as a political problem. It has resurfaced because in the past two years the most violent crime – homicide – has resurfaced.

This kind of visceral response to a problem is a perennial “feature” of school board struggles. Almost 50 years ago, textbook fights in Kanawha County, West Virginia led to mass boycotts, shootings and the blasting of at least one elementary school. Quarrels over what books should and should not be in school libraries are more or less constant local arguments. Now the combustible question of race in America and how to teach it has quickly become the question of choice for the Republican Party. And Democrats face a significant challenge in pushing back.

On the one hand, there are clear and convincing arguments to be made in order to teach children very directly about the nation’s marked past. Children of Texas should know that the original constitution of the Republic of Texas protected slavery and prevented Indians and “Africans” from becoming citizens. Children in New York should learn that suburban developments prohibit blacks from buying homes.

This is not a “critical theory of race,” an academic concept that is not taught in elementary or secondary schools. It’s just history. But some of the premises of this theory have in fact gained ground – for example, the idea that some widely admired attributes are rooted in “whiteness.” It’s not hard to exacerbate the fears of conservative or moderate white suburban parents that such criticism amounts to an attack on some core and seemingly color-blind American values.

What makes all of this so infuriating for Democrats is that there is ample evidence that black voters themselves do not broadly share such views, nor do they support “spend” campaigns. police ‘from last year. Eric Adams, the next mayor of New York and Jim Clyburn, Democratic House whip, strongly opposed them.

For Democrats, a lesson from Virginia may well be that their candidates in 2022 and 2024 – including most certainly Biden – will have to find ways to stand up against these views, just as much as the party needs to fend off the tsunami. lies from the GOP candidates who will be unleashed about what and how our nation’s children are taught. This creates the risk of another “Sister Souljah” moment, in which Bill Clinton alienated a generation of black voters while cementing the coalition he needed to win.

Today, the mainstream of the National Democratic Party is still overwhelmingly focused on politics, not culture. They are trying to rule, which they were elected to do. But at some point, they’ll have to start campaigning again, and if Democrats believe passing an infrastructure program and a big social spending bill will provide the ammunition to fend off a new culture war. launched by the GOP, they are deluding themselves. If you compare parents’ concerns about their children’s education to a subsidy for electric cars or a better rail system a few years down the road, the scales will tip quite sharply to one side.

For Republicans, Virginia’s signal is very clear. The party is already gathering the troops for the next cultural war. The next three years could be a scorched earth period in American cities and suburbs. And Democrats, if they want to win, cannot be conscientious objectors.


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